In the midst of pandemic shutdowns that brought much of normal human activity to a standstill, Missy Mazzoli took refuge on a remote Swedish island in the Baltic Sea last summer. There, in what once was the home of reclusive film director Ingmar Bergman, the 41-year-old composer worked on a violin concerto that drew from medieval rituals to ward off the plague. Jennifer Koh led this musical procession for its world premiere this week with the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of New Zealand–born guest conductor Gemma New.
“I was thinking a lot about music as a healing ritual, and how we use music to heal, for obvious reasons, given everything that we’ve gone through and we continue to go through with the pandemic,” Mazzoli said Friday as she introduced the concerto, dubbed Procession. “I became very interested in medieval rituals of healing, especially around outbreaks of the plague.” Tongue in cheek, she added: “a reminder that things could always be worse.”
For the piece to have grown legs at Bergman’s estate on Fårö is unsurprising. The island’s most famous resident created The Seventh Seal (1957), which sees a knight challenge Death to a chess match after returning from the Crusades to find Sweden in the grips of the plague. Bergman, whose works are imbued with symbolism, also filmed parts of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Scenes from a Marriage (1973) on Fårö itself.
Mazzoli’s healing journey consists of five parts that sometimes run into one another without interruption, starting with “Procession in a Spiral.” Koh doubled as a sort of mad shaman in a series of airy arpeggiated figures with sharp edges that sent bow hairs fluttering in the still air. Orchestra musicians propelled her forward like so many fasting, barefooted faithful walking in robes of penitence during an imaginary ritual.
Chords and melodies joined in unison, rubbed against and interrupted one other without notice, just as humans might in the course of a song or an argument. Familiar tunes bonded with uncomfortable or unexpected sounds, like Bartók, or snap pizzicato in the strings, wind players blowing unpitched air into their instruments or a bassoon carrying a melody over a bass drone. The high drama illustrates the insatiable appetite of a composer at the forefront of American contemporary music in other disciplines like film, literature and theater, which she incorporates seamlessly into her own work.
Parts two (“St. Vitus”) and four (“Bone to Bone, Blood to Blood”) are dance-like interludes, one paying tribute to the patron saint of dancers and entertainers said to have the power to banish evil spirits, and the other referencing a spell for injured travelers to heal broken bones. Part three reworks the hymn “O My Soul,” while the last section reorganizes materials from the first movement into what Mazzoli called “a sort of straight line to the sky.” This savage voyage comes to a screeching halt, literally, after a hammer blow to tubular bells and the solo violin bow’s abrupt stop on the strings.
The concerto emerged from more than a decade of collaboration, and friendship, between Mazzoli and Koh — a champion of new music — starting with the solo violin piece “Dissolve, O My Heart” (2010). That LA Philharmonic commission begins with the D minor opening chord of Bach’s evocative Chaconne before spiraling seemingly out of control into a series of differentiated chords and fast passages.
The powerful performance and warm reception to the premiere brought to life by a composer-soloist-conductor trio of women point to a hopeful future of enlightened curiosity for a field too often dominated by older white males and overplayed works. The true measure of that new chapter could be a time when works created and performed by women and non-white artists are so frequent that they become part of the norm.
The concerto was Mazzoli’s first work for the National Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned the piece with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Friday’s performance took place at Capital One Hall, a newly opened venue in Tysons, Virginia that is a public-private partnership between Fairfax County and Capital One Bank, bookended by Kennedy Center presentations on Thursday and Saturday.
Koh will join the CSO with Louis Langrée next month for that city’s premiere of the work, both in the concert hall and online for a live-streamed performance. At the end of March, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Mazzoli ended a prestigious residency last year, will premiere her Orpheus Undone after pandemic delays. The two-movement piece uses fragments of material from her 2019 ballet Orpheus Alive, focusing on two key moments in the myth: when Eurydice dies and when Orpheus follows his beloved into the underworld, with tragic consequences.
New, who returned as guest conductor after a successful NSO debut in January 2020, led the orchestra with crisp precision in a program that revolved around journeys. She highlighted the delicate textures of English sun and shade in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), while providing a more delicate release of the swans depicted in Jean Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony (1915–1919), which closed the evening. On the podium, New summoned the orchestra to new heights as though she pushed and tugged at an imaginary windstorm. When the horns take over the so-called “swan theme” in the symphony’s third movement, there’s an “epiphany that simple things in life are not easy to get when life is tough, but they can give you the biggest joy,” she said.
The National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gemma New with violinist Jennifer Koh performed Missy Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto (Procession) on February 3 and 5, 2022, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and February 4, 2022, at Capital One Hall.
The Kennedy Center’s COVID Safety Plan is here.
Jennifer Koh next performs the concerto on March 11-12 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the Cincinnati Music Hall under the baton of Louis Langrée. Tickets here.